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Ed Vaizey

30 years of Channel 4

To give the Fourth Channel a distinctive character of its own.
That was the simple instruction in the Broadcasting Act 1981 to those running the new Channel 4.
I very much doubt the author had any idea what the impact of those words would be.

Channel 4 set out with a simple objective – to be different. And 30 years on, I think we can all agree that Channel 4 has done that.

Jeremy Isaacs, the channel’s first chief executive, said in a recent interview that when Channel 4 launched, the existing channels aimed to please a mass audience. They produced programmes for the whole family watching TV together.
He said they recognised that different viewers had different tastes and they wanted Channel 4 to serve those varied tastes. Critics said Channel 4 set out to serve those with no taste. It has certainly pushed the boundaries of what we find entertaining, funny and even acceptable.

It has been no stranger to controversy. From Brookside showing the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss to quite a lot of The Word, from a live autopsy to an alternative Christmas message from Iranian president President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Channel 4 has not shied away from rocking the boat.
Programmes like Brass Eye have attracted equal amounts of acclaim and condemnation.

And that’s kind of the point of Channel 4. If it produced programmes that appealed to everyone then it would be failing in its primary purpose – to be distinctive.
But it would be wrong to dismiss Channel 4 as just three decades of headline-grabbing stunts.
Over the last 30 years it has been distinctive – sometimes shocking and sometimes controversial – but always distinctive.

Take sport for example. In the days before we all had the Internet and dedicated sports channels, it was incredibly exotic to watch Italian league football on Channel 4.
And the channel embraced other sports that didn’t get a great deal of attention from UK media like American Football, sumo wrestling and kabaddi, which really was like nothing else on TV.
Special mention has to go to Channel 4’s coverage of the London Paralympic Games. Almost 500 hours of live coverage across multiple television and online channels made this the most extensively covered Paralympics ever in the UK.

Channel 4 also has a clear commitment to journalism. Channel 4 News has won many awards over the years while series like Unreported World have informed us about tragedies and atrocities that for whatever reason never make the news.
And let’s not forget its contribution to British cinema. Channel 4 was behind some of the most acclaimed UK films such as Four Weddings and A Funeral and Trainspotting.

As the channel hits the big 3-0, it is operating in a very different broadcasting world to the one it did so much to change when it launched in 1982.
Some question whether Channel 4 can continue to meet its primary purpose in an age of hundreds of TV channels and the Internet.

But that question is easy to answer. Ask yourself whether Channel 4 still has a distinctive character.
The answer is undoubtedly yes. No-one else on TV wears ties like Jon Snow.

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